Frustrations from One Year Living in Paris
Leah Walker March 5, 2016

On March 28, 2015, I boarded a United flight with a couple of bags bound for France. I can hardly believe that I’ve been living in Paris for almost a year. These twelve months have been some of my happiest, but they’ve not been without frustration and a few tears.

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This was the view from the top of the stairs at my first flat by Parc Monceau.

As polished, poised, and perfect as things appear on social media, please know that this isn’t my Paris reality. Being an expat in France doesn’t come without its complications and annoyances. And since I’m asked daily–either in person, social media, or by email—about living in Paris, I decided to pour some of my biggest Paris frustrations out on virtual paper.

Housing in Paris

For over a year, I feel like a good bit of my life has been dedicated to securing a place to live. Complicated at best and homicidal at least, the process of finding a flat in the City of Love is anything but lovely. Even if I’d moved to Paris with those suitcases filled with euros, it still wouldn’t be easy.

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It would be a dream to live inside Parc Monceau.

I need a furnished flat rented months at a time. Since most of these kinds of flats are geared toward vacation renters {Airbnb’s #1 market is Paris}, finding something that is both reasonably priced and livable to my standards isn’t such a simple thing. After all, owners can rent their flats for about a week and cover what they’d get from me in a month. The financial incentive to keep renting to vacationers is monumental, thus, many of the city’s flats are empty and/or have a constant flow of holiday renters.

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It doesn’t get more private than Cité des Fleurs in the 17th arrondissement.

This has become a serious issue, as many Parisians can’t afford to live in their own city. Recently, there have been crackdowns in illegal vacation rentals in popular areas such as the Marais, and Paris has even passed new rent control laws. Still, many owners continue to ignore these regulations because the likelihood of getting caught and punished is small.

To add insult to injury, because of very strict tenant laws, owners are crazy-selective as to whom they actually allow to live in their flats. For instance, there are laws against evicting a legal lease holder during the months of October to March due to the cold temperatures. It doesn’t matter that the legal tenant is three months behind on rent; there’s nothing the owner can do. Because of laws such as this, owners require a mound of paperwork that includes pay stubs, contracts, bank balances, and tax returns.

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Coveted flats overlooking Coulée verte René-Dumont in the 12th arrondissement

If you’re like me and don’t have a regular paycheck or employment contract, many owners require a French guarantor. Now, I have a lot of great friends in France, but I’d never ask one of them to guarantee my rent. As an alternative, I even had one owner tell me that I could pay the year’s rent in advance. Are you freakin’ kidding me?!?

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Oh, the 7th arrondissement and its typical Haussmann buildings…j’adore.

I’ve essentially been relegated to going through agencies that manage apartments, which come with hefty fees. My first apartment in the 8th was found and rented through an apartment rental company that I’d previously worked with professionally. My second flat, which I just moved in to, was also found through an agency. I’ve been in touch with the owner of the company for over a year and actually live in his personally owned apartment.

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The view from my old flat in the 8th arrondissement wasn’t too bad.

I’ve discovered that unless you know someone who owns apartments, take over a lease from a friend, or somehow stumble on to an opportunity, finding a reasonably priced place to live in Paris is beyond challenging. Really, being in the right place at the right time, even with loads of money, is essential.

French Bank Account

I know this probably sounds crazy, but I still do not have a bank account in France. Since I’m obsessed with accruing miles, I use my United credit card for just about everything. About once per month, I use an ATM to withdrawal a chunk of money from my American account. My bank charges $5 for the privilege, but after a few months, I just call and request a refund of those fees. It’s not ideal, but I’ve made it work.

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Sometimes I feel like I’m in a free fall living in France.

Frankly, I want to keep my money out of France, primarily for tax accounting purposes. In case you didn’t know, the USA is the only {there are two, apparently} country that requires its citizens to report and pay taxes no matter where in the world they live. It doesn’t matter if I don’t step foot in the country for two years. As an American citizen, I’m required to file and possibly pay taxes to the USA. The government has even passed a law that can strip people of their passports if they don’t file US taxes. Living in France, I also am required to file taxes here.

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It doesn’t matter that I’m currently a Parisian, I still must pay American taxes.

Since I work on a freelance basis with clients around the world, I make sure that I’m always paid in the United States to make things {accounting} easier {UPDATE: I now am also regularly paid in France.} I think I would cry if I had to pay taxes in America and France {UPDATE: You’ve got to make six figures before being double taxed, so that’s not a problem…yet}. Honestly, I’m not even sure that having a French bank account would have any impact on my tax status in France, but I’d rather be safe than sorry until I do figure this out. {UPDATE: It has no effect, but American FACTA laws are a bitch and make it almost impossible to get a bank account in France}. And don’t get me started talking about my confusion over the expat tax laws in France {UPDATE: Thanks to an awesome accountant, I’ve got the tax situation figured out.}

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That iPhone is often the bane of my existence in France.

Other than the sake of convenience, is having a French bank account important? YES! The biggest issue I’ve encountered relates to mobile service. In order to enter into a cell phone contract in France, you must have a carte de sejour {which I have} and a French bank account. Setting up a Visa or Master Card payment isn’t good enough. So, for the past year, I’ve visited Orange {my service provider} once or twice per month to top up my phone. I get 1000 texts, 1000 minutes, and 2 GB of data for €30 for use over 30 days. {Update: I finally have a cell phone contract.}

It’s pretty much a huge pain in the ass, as I have to physically walk into an Orange store. I’m usually stuck standing in an obscene line in order to do something that will take literally two minutes and should be available to purchase online. It’s on occasions such as this that I really miss living in the USA. Hey, I know that eventually I’ll have to open a French account, but the idea and its possible ripple effect are just too overwhelming for me to handle right now. {UPDATE: As of June, 2016, I have a bank account!}

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Life in Paris isn’t always a piece of cake, but there are warm madeleines to provide comfort.

Life’s not a piece of cake, but being an expat in Paris is still pretty sweet. And despite my frustrations, I’ve not once thought of packing my bags and moving back to Texas. The good definitely outweighs the bad, and being an expat anywhere comes with its difficulties. I’m navigating a new country with a different set of rules and challenges. Add to this my deficiency in the language, and sometimes those challenges seem insurmountable. My strategy is to complain to friends {I’m already assimilating to the French way} and then ask for help in figuring out a solution. I’m fortunate to have a fantastic support system in France, and I couldn’t imagine trying to traverse this situation alone.

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One of my favorite sites in the city, especially with the French flag.

So, the next time you see a pretty picture of the Arc de Triomphe on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, keep in mind that I probably edited that very photo while standing in line at the Champs-Élysées Orange store. Of course, you can also follow me on Snapchat {Leahtravels} for a look behind-the-scenes at my daily life in Paris.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, USA Today 10 Best, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel and wine ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's lived in Paris for three years, and was recently awarded another four with a Passeport Talent visa renewal. Though, her talent for speaking French is abysmal.

23 Comments

  1. Just my two cents, but be careful with not paying taxes in France. It usually does not matter where you are paid, but where you spend more than 180 days/year. Maybe check with an accountant.

  2. As usual, you photos and your commentary are awesome. I’ve seen that amazing sky and will see it again soon and I just can’t wait. It’s so obvious why you’re considered one of the very best.

  3. Hi Leah! My American girlfriend shared that article with me (born and raised in the Hexagon), it’s really insightful. Amazing pictures as well! If that’s any consolation – which I doubt – it’s not that much easier to find accommodation as a French native.

    I would, however, concur with Maria Abroad above and check your tax situation with an accountant or at least someone who’s a bit versed in the French tax code. Not paying tax in France whilst living in France may fall under tax fraud, and while I understand the US system is definitely unfair, I don’t think the French government cares. Besides, this “US abroad tax” only applies if you earn north of ~$100k (and the money below that doesn’t get taxed). It might be worth the convenience of having a local account!

    1. Thanks so much, Quentin. I’ve heard from many French that finding a place to live is also difficult, so I can find some solace in that. I’ve enlisted the help of someone in regard to the tax laws and am working toward a plan. It’s so complicated!

  4. I totally agree on the bank account thing! It’s not worth it – I tried to open an account and 5 months later I still have no access to the account, they’re asking me to pay fees on it, and they have 50 euros of mine. Avoid it as long as you can!

    1. I have a friend who is a French banker who is helping me navigate this. He said that the worst case scenario is to try Banque Postale. Legally, they can’t deny an account to anyone because they are partially owned by the French government.

  5. I can relate to this. I had to pay four months rent up front in Gijón, Spain, as I had no guarantors or references in the country. I battled for months to get the place, then there was connecting everything and the language barrier. Although, as you’ve said, still pretty sweet being an expat!

  6. This reminds me of when I first moved to Turin in Italy. Finding a place to live was exceedingly hard and when I did I had to come up with several million lire in cash to secure the apartment (pre-euro days). Getting the money was hard enough but I then had to get across town with millions of lire in small bills, I’ve never had money come in banded stacks before or since.

    As for your tax affairs. You really need to sort this out. As a Brit (with a US SSN) married to an American, living in Australia, I’ve had a bit of experience. Even though you are freelance you have to pay tax where you earn the money, not where it is most convenient to do so. You won’t end up being double taxed, the principle with the US system is you only pay US tax if you pay less abroad than you would have at home, and there are some generous concessions to make a substantial part of your income tax free in any case.

    You are, however, rorting the French government. Not only are you, most likely, breaking the law and putting your visa at risk; you are also free riding on the French system; living in Paris, benefitting from french public sevices. You should definitely normalise your tax affairs or it could end up getting messy.

    1. First off, I’ve not taken anything from the French system, even though I could get housing subsidies and so much more help. I’m in the process of getting social security number so I can get my Carte Vitale. If I’m going to pay social taxes, then I want something in return. But, I need a bank account in order to have a Carte Vitale. This is how the government reimburses medical costs. Finding a bank that will take an American account holder was a nightmare, but I finally found one. However, they need a tax number in order to open the account. I can’t get a tax number until I file taxes in June. I will receive the tax number in September when I get the paper that shows how much tax I owe. Sooooooo…..the fun continues.

      I’m still trying to figure out all the tax stuff. I’ll file in the USA and likely not owe anything, however the French system still has me perplexed.

  7. instead of going into an orange shop, do it online: https://topup.orange.com/
    this works with foreign credit cards. i just recharged my orange spain sim and i’m in canada.

    the USA is not the only country that taxes its citizens regardless of where they live. there is one other country in the world that does that as well; Eritrea.

    your united miles are costing you dearly. it could be cheaper to buy them since the exchange rate you get using your visa is likely much higher than if you were to do a single large transaction at a negotiated rate at your bank. the post account is a very good idea, very versatile.

    1. The only problem with the Orange topup on line is that I can only choose the 20 euro plan that’s good for all of Europe. They don’t have the 30 euro plan that is good for France and comes with a lot more data, minutes, and texts.

      I had no idea about Eritrea, obviously. Interesting…

      My United card doesn’t have foreign transaction fees and their exchange rate is always very close to the market.

  8. Just stumbled across this, and I figured I’d add my two cents. You complain about having to go into Orange to top off your phone, yet you don’t open a French bank account which would solve that problem… Also, Schwab’s checking account is free, there is no minimum balance requirement, and they reimburse you on all of your fees, even if you incur them at the ATM itself (which of course doesn’t happen in France, but does in other countries in Europe), so if you do continue to live abroad, I’d definitely look into that!

    1. Finding a French bank that will take an American account holder is almost impossible. I found one, however. But, they need a tax number in order to open the account. I can’t get a tax number until I file taxes in June. I will receive the tax number in September when I get the paper that shows how much tax I owe. It’s not as simple as just walking into a bank with some money and a photo ID.

      I’ve been with my bank in the USA for over 20 years and have all my investments, retirement, etc with them. I don’t want to change. Paying a few ATM fees doesn’t bother me, as I get most of them refunded.

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